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Key Caps questions: Who will play center on the fourth line?

Key Caps questions: Who will play center on the fourth line?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Who will be the team's primary fourth line center?

With the departure of Jay Beagle, there is a spot open at center on the fourth line. There appears on the roster to be three clear candidates to fill that position: Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd.

To find out why you should cross Stephenson’s name off the list, you should read yesterday's Key Caps Question about whether or not Stephenson is a wing or a center. To summarize, Washington sees Stephenson as more of a wing which explains why they both re-signed Boyd and brought in Dowd.

So who will it be between those two?

Both players seem to fit the mold as effective centers in the AHL where they were both productive. Dowd has an edge in NHL experience with 131 NHL games as compared to Boyd’s eight.

But Barry Trotz clearly had faith in Boyd at center which is why we saw him fill in on the top line on March 18 in Philadelphia. Boyd rewarded that faith with a spin pass to Alex Ovechkin for an assist, his first career point.

Trotz is now gone and Todd Reirden is in charge, but there is at least a level of familiarity there with the coaching staff and Boyd, more so than with Dowd who is new to the organization.

Second, the Caps may have tipped their hand a bit when you compare the two contracts. Center is an important position and Brian MacLellan has frequently referenced the team’s strength in center depth as a major reason for their Cup run.

Both Boyd and Dowd were signed over the offseason. Both contracts are one-way, suggesting both will be in the NHL, but Boyd’s cap hit is $800,000 while Dowd’s is $650,000. Of course, that will not matter when the players get on the ice. If Dowd outplays Boyd, he will start over him. Plus, the market ultimately dictates price. Even if the Caps wanted Dowd for their top line, if you can get him for $650k, you sign him for $650k.

Considering how important a position center is, however, even on the fourth line, it seems telling that the team was willing to give Boyd, a player with eight games of experience to his name, $800k while Dowd was signed for the minimum. That seems to suggest the Caps at least foresee Boyd having a bigger role which, for two players penciled in for the fourth line, would mean playing him at center.

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Brenden Dillon indicates he is open to re-signing with Capitals

Brenden Dillon indicates he is open to re-signing with Capitals

With a training camp in July, a delayed postseason, an abbreviated offseason, a flat salary cap all in the midst of a pandemic, the future is uncertain for pending unrestricted free agent defenseman Brenden Dillon. While not much is known right now, there is one thing he does know and that is that he really likes it in Washington.

"I'm happy with being a Washington Capital," Dillon said. "From Day 1 when I came here in the trade, they've made me feel right at home. I think the system, the way we play from the D-core on, I feel a big part of things here."

Dillon was with the San Jose Sharks since 2014 before he was traded. The reality that he would most likely be playing somewhere else in 2020-21 came to a head when the Sharks bottomed-out and sold him at the trade deadline to Washington. Now, his future is uncertain.

RELATED: CAPS RELEASE PHASE 3 ROSTER

At 29 years old, the next contract was likely going to be Dillon's last big one. He is on the last year of a five-year contract that carries a cap hit of $3.27 million per year. In a normal offseason, he likely would have sought another long-term deal with a raise. This, however, will not be a normal offseason and it is suddenly unclear what kind of money players will be able to get on the open market.

Dillon said he is trying not to concern himself with the uncertainty of free agency.

"I've had so much other things I've been worried about," he said. "Just the world in general and touching base with family and friends and everything."

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Dillon has played primarily on the top pair with John Carlson since he was brought in. Though the pandemic has limited him to just 10 games of action with the Caps, both sides seem to have left a favorable impression. When asked about his future, Dillon indicated he would be open to re-signing.

"The kind of mutual talks amongst my agent and [general manager Brian MacLellan], those things are confidential with them," Dillon said. "But for me as a player and being part of the Caps, it's been awesome and hopefully can be here."

Though he fits in nicely as a top-four defenseman, re-signing him would add another body into a logjam of left-shooting defensemen within the franchise.

Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler, Marin Fehervary and Alex Alexeyev are all left defensemen and all but Siegenthaler are under contract beyond this season. Siegenthaler is a restricted free agent who will almost certainly be re-signed. Re-signing Dillon exacerbates the issue, but top-four defensemen are hard to find and if a proven player like Dillon is interested in re-signing, that is hard to pass up if you can get the numbers to work.

The possibility of there being interest in Dillon returning to Washington beyond this season adds to the importance of the 2020 postseason. This may not just be a quest for the Cup, but an audition for those left defensemen to see who the team may want to keep for the future.

"For a lot of us going into this free agency, there's going to be a lot of questions from not just the players' side, but the team side and the planning that goes into these things," Dillon said. "That's above my pay grade and I'll kind of cross that bridge when I get there."

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Lars Eller intends to leave bubble for the birth of his second child

Lars Eller intends to leave bubble for the birth of his second child

The disruption to the NHL season because of the coronavirus has affected more than just the postseason. For Lars Eller, it will mean having to leave the team in order to be with his family for the birth of his second child.

The 2020 postseason is scheduled to begin Aug. 1. Eller's wife is due on Aug. 8, the same day as the Capitals' third round robin game. Obviously that means unless she delivers early, the baby will be born after Eller has left for Toronto.

Eller, however, expressed Tuesday that he intends to be with his family when the baby is born.

"We're working on making the necessary arrangements so I can be for the birth and come back to the bubble after that," Eller said.

When the whole point of the bubble is to isolate the players and limit their contact with the outside world in order to keep them from contracting the coronavirus, obviously this will present some challenges.

RELATED: CAPS RELEASE PHASE 3 ROSTER

Eller, however, is hardly the only player who is facing this dilemma. The season pause means several players who thought they were going to have an offseason baby now will be having their new additions during the postseason. While the NHL and NHL Players' Association were negotiating the health and safety protocols for the league's return to play plan, family access became one of the major talking points. It's hard to maintain a bubble if you also allow family members in, but players did not want to be away from their families for several months. Certain rules were written in that would allow players to leave the bubble and return if necessary and those are the rules Eller is now trying to figure out so he can rejoin the team after his baby is born.

"You're going to have to take a lot of precautions for when you leave," Eller said. "Depending on how you travel and you travel back and forth and who you're going to be in contact with and so on, I'll have to serve some time inside the bubble and test a number of times before I can join my teammates again and play games. We're working on trying to figure out how we do that the best possible way."

Players did have the option of opting out of the playoffs, but Eller elected not to take that option. For him, trying to win a second Stanley Cup is still a priority, it's just not more important than his family.

"We're going to have a new addition to our family here in a couple weeks," Eller said. "I don't know when it's going to happen, but it's going to happen. But at the same time, I want to be with my team and also committed to that and want to win another Cup."

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